As demonstrated by the recently concluded Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which eight contemporary authors were invited to write novels inspired by some of the Bard’s best-loved plays, using an existing work of literature as a jumping-off point for a new one can either work brilliantly (as in Edward St Aubyn’s formidably intelligent update of King Lear) or hardly at all (Jo Nesbo’s take on Macbeth). Happily, AL Kennedy’s The Little Snake, written to mark the 75th anniversary of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, falls unconditionally into the former category.
In contrast to the Hogarth authors, who tended to stick fairly closely to characters and plot of the originals, Kennedy’s approach is more subtle. She takes only one character from The Little Prince, the small, golden snake who has the power to send whoever he touches “back to the earth from whence he came.” She calls him Lanmo, and he is a wonderful creation, an eloquent, slightly self-important creature who “sparkles” his scales and “sleeks” up to people.
She more or less ignores Saint-Exupéry’s story, instead choosing to absorb the simple-yet-knowing prose style of the original while at the same time infusing it with her own distinctively dark wit. However, she does import some of its underlying assumptions, not least the idea that grown-ups lack imagination and so cannot participate fully in the magical world of children. At one point, a couple of adult characters can’t see Lanmo even though he is sitting right in front of them, partly because they are distracted and partly “because they were grown-ups.”
Like the snake in The Little Prince, Lanmo has the power to take life, and when we first meet him he has been travelling around the world for hundreds of years performing this duty without, as he puts it, forming “personal opinions about the people I meet while do what I must do.”
When he encounters a “wise little girl” called Mary, however, a girl who likes “honey and whistling and the colour blue and finding out,” he finds himself becoming more curious, and the two strike up a friendship. Then, as Mary’s home city is slowly transformed from a place of kites and rose gardens to a place of violence and despair, he becomes her protector, carefully vetting her boyfriend, Paul, and then returning to check up on them whenever his hectic work schedule allows.
In a recent interview, Kennedy said she wanted to make readers ask themselves “How would we manage if we had to leave our country?” and this is certainly a refugee story in that it is Mary and Paul’s journey from their war-torn home to the safety of the Land of Perditi that gives the book its narrative framework. The real journey, though, belongs to the snake.
As his relationship with Mary develops, his attitude towards humans gradually changes from casual curiosity to a level of emotional engagement that both surprises and discombobulates him. By the end, he will have acquired a very human sense of righteous indignation (there is a delicious scene where he pays an unexpected visit to a warmongering head of state) and he will also have learned to love, and, finally, to cry. As the narrator puts it, this is the story “of how a snake’s heart learned to beat,” and in showing us a cold-blooded creature slowly becoming human, Kennedy offers a gentle, clear-sighted and deeply moving commentary on what humanity really means.
The Little Snake, by AL Kennedy, Canongate, 132pp, £9.99